Only in India – Why I’ll Never Return


Roughly one third of my oxygen was missing—not the thinnest air I’d ever breathed, but it was anticipated.  Not anticipated was having to cross the Zanskar River suspended in a wire basket several hundred feet above the water.   The Indian government had built a new bridge here a few years ago, but before we arrived there had been a landslide upstream, which impeded the water flow.  The river then flooded the fields, making the farmers unhappy.  The army arrived with dynamite and blasted out the obstruction in the river. The sudden release of water demolished the new bridge plus two more downstream. Only in India. 

After two hours, all of our group and our gear were on the other side of the river. The guide passed out box lunches.  I tore open the box to find a single piece of cheese on white bread and a potato.   Lunch finished, we received our marching orders from the guide: hike in single file, no stopping to drink, no stopping for pictures.  It was not an auspicious beginning to the trek.

Background

I was considering a second trip to the Andes when my wife pointed out a prospectus for a trip to India in a national hiking club magazine.  It included a week long trek in Ladakh and visits to Delhi, Jaipur and Agra. A little research indicated that Leh, the capital of Ladakh, was not very tourist friendly, but changes were coming to the infrastructure and the attitudes.  The group size was limited to 8 and it was to be led by an American club member.   Our previous treks had been solo affairs but we decided the small group size would be a good tradeoff for having someone else take care of all the logistics.  It was the worst decision we ever made.

Ladakh lies at the extreme northern tip of India and is known as the Land of High Passes.  Our trek was through the Markha Valley, which is considered one of the remotest valleys in the region. The climate is technically known as a “high altitude cold desert” one characteristic of which is the large variation in daily temperature. Our trek was in September, considered the best month to trek, daily temperature fluctuations being lowest then. But even so, with lows of 32°F at night and 85°F during the day, it’s possible if you try hard enough, to get frostbite and heatstroke on the same day. 

Arriving at Delhi Airport, we stood in line for an hour, only to be told to go the E-Visa line by an extremely rude agent, only to find none of the E-Visa equipment worked.    Escaping the airport, we got a half hour taxi ride to a hotel that was five minutes away.  The next day we took an Air India flight to Leh.  The headline glaring out from that days newspaper was “Air India-Worst Safety Record in the Industry.”  The flight over the Himalayas was spectacular, and the airport approach with its last second turn around the mountains was terrifying.  I walked past the uniformed soldiers carrying semi-automatic weapons, into the restroom, saw the hole in the floor surrounded by excrement and walked out, wondering what we had gotten into.

Leh is built on the side of a huge hill.  The entire center of town looked like it had been hit by a bomb and we quickly realized that the infrastructure improvements that were supposed to have been done 4 years ago were still underway.  The streets were torn up and the buildings were covered in bamboo scaffolding several stories tall.  At the edges of the road the drainage ditches for water runoff were filled with litter and garbage.  There were dogs everywhere lying in or alongside the street. It seemed as if they had no owners. It was hard to tell if they were even alive.    The remains of the grand stone fortress and royal palace overlook the town. Surrounded by prayer flags, with the gorgeous blue skies in the background it felt like we had been unknowingly transported to Tibet.

Day Tripping

The first morning in Leh there had been a meeting with the owner of the Indian trekking company, and we learned two fateful things. Our trip leader had never been to India before and our group had grown from 8 to 15.  Flying from sea level to an altitude 2 miles higher necessitated that we spend the first few days acclimating to the lower air pressure.  Therefore, only day trips with minimal hiking were scheduled.  The first one involved driving west toward Alchi, to check out Alchi and Likir Gompas. (Gompa implies a remote place that is a combination of fort and university.   Large gompas which house many monks become monasteries).  We stopped along the way to take pictures of the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar Rivers.   Each river was a different shade of green and as they joined together amid the barren brown mountains, they flowed side by side in a single stream bed until their waters eventually intermingled and became one.  It was one of the most stunning sights of the trip. 

The next two days involved an overnight trip to the Nubra Valley north of Leh.   At dinner that night our trip leader announced, “Pack up all your stuff, we have to vacate the rooms tomorrow.”

“Seriously?”

“Yes, the owner may want to rent the rooms.”

“But we’re coming back the next day. Who is going to rent a room for one night and besides it’s the end of the trekking season?”

“He might get lucky.”

“The rest of the hotel is empty.”

“Doesn’t matter. He says we can’t leave our stuff in the rooms.”

This made no sense to anyone and we all assumed that there must have been some miscommunication among the American trip leader, the Indian trekking service and the hotel.    Everyone packed up their suitcases and carried them all downstairs (the porters were mysteriously absent at this time) and put them in a big pile near the front door of the hotel lobby.  The hotel staff then carted all the suitcases into a storage area to await our return the next day.  Only in India.

We set off in a bus on the Khardung La Road (La means pass in the Ladakhi language) which is known as the highest motorable road in the world. The pass, at elevation 18,380 feet, is 700 feet higher than Mount Everest South Base Camp in Nepal.  With more twists than a licorice factory, the 23 mile ride to the top of the pass takes about 2 hours.  There were several places where two vehicles could not pass, in which case the drivers stared at each other, then shouted at each other, then finally one would back up and let the other go by.  We made a brief stop at the top to take pictures and use the restrooms.  It was obvious that they had never been cleaned since they were installed and most of us elected to go outside behind the restrooms. 

Nubra Valley

On the way down to the Nubra Valley we visited the monastery at Diskit, a huge complex rambling up the side of a mountain.  In the valley, the group walked to the sand dunes and rode the double humped Bactrian camels, the type once used for the Silk Road trade.   After a gorgeous sunset ride, we walked back to our hotel, the Himalayan Eco Resort. The shower facilities consisted of a 5 gallon bucket to sit on in the middle of the bathroom, with another bucket to pour water over yourself.  We brushed a dozen spiders out of the bed and managed to get to sleep, wondering if it was considered an eco-resort because of the wildlife in the bed or the (forced) water conservation measures.

On Saturday morning we got back on the bus and returned to Leh via the same Khardung La Road.  The merchants seemed to be getting more aggressive, coming out of their shops and accosting us on the sidewalks.  At our hotel, the porters proceeded to bring our suitcases out of the storage room which we then carried up to the same rooms we had vacated the day before. It was time to get out of Leh.

The Trek

We hiked 3 miles the first day and 10 miles the second day.  The reason for the short day/long day we later figured out, was that the porters did not want to set up the portable outhouses mentioned in the trip prospectus, so they hiked us to where ever something resembling a toilet facility could be found.  These were essentially outhouses, but without a seat. Balance and aim were hard to master—if the hole was too small, you missed and if the hole was too big, you felt like you were falling in.    Eventually we arrived at camp and found all the sleeping bags in one pile, ensuring that you slept in a different bag each night.  Everyone made a mad rush for their favorite tent, as many of them had broken zippers and would not close properly.  This was definitely unlike any other trek we had been on and my spirits were low in the Land of High Passes.

Wednesday began cloudy and cold in the morning, with a brief flurry of snow and some hail but it cleared up around 10:00 AM.  Crossing a pass at 16,000 feet on our way to the Plains of Nimaling the majestic Kang Yaze hove into view.  Pointed, snowcapped and glacier filled, it is the highest mountain in the Zanskar range (21,000 feet) and one of the most spectacular vistas we had on the entire trip.   

Late in the day hundreds of white pashmina goats returned from the mountains to the corrals.  These goats are raised for ultra-fine cashmere wool, which is known as pashmina once woven.  Three womenwere guarding the goats and our group was offered a tour of their “hut”.   It was made of stone, circular in shape and appeared from the outside to be about 3 -4 feet tall.  The top was covered by clear sheets of plastic held down by rocks.  Stooping down to enter, we found it was smoke filled from the indoor fire (with no chimney) and we could barely breathe.  They offered tea and cheese, which most dared not eat for fear of getting sick. The reason for the hospitality soon became clear- they wanted drugs for their sore backs.  Only in India.

The campsite at the Plains of Nimaling was the highest on the trek, nearly 3 miles above sea level.  Despite hundreds of acres of flat ground, the porters pitched all the tents within a couple of feet of each other.    By this time almost everyone was sick and the constant coughing coming from the other tents was making sleep difficult. (It is impossible not to get sick in India, it is only a matter of when and how bad.)  It was snowing in the morning as the group headed up to the high point of the trek, Gongmaru La, at elevation 17,050 feet. The snow stopped in mid-morning and it again turned into a beautiful clear day. This was the first day we saw wildlife, including bharals (blue sheep) deer and ibex.  The trip prospectus had said that on a clear day we would see K2, the world’s second highest mountain, from the top of the pass, but when we asked the guide to point it out, he just laughed and walked away.  Food rations were now down to rolls and beans, with over a day left on the trek.  Bad planning, inexperience or an attempt to save money by buying minimal supplies – we could only guess.  It began to seem like the trip prospectus was an exercise in creative writing.

The trek started with 15 and 12 of us made it to the end of the trail at Shang Sumdo.   Despite the lack of food and substandard equipment, we were all sad that the trek was over. The group had all gotten along well and the high-altitude cold desert scenery was like nothing we had ever seen before. We knew we would miss the solitude but looked forward to the comfort of the cities.

The Cities

The remainder of the trip, a bus ride from Delhi to Agra to Jaipur and then a flight back to Delhi was what we had come to expect from India.  The hotels were gorgeous with all the latest electrical conveniences, but none of them worked. The ATMs didn’t work, the hotel elevators didn’t work, the magnetic room keys worked when they felt like it.  We assumed the bathroom situation would be better in the city than it was in the mountains, but it was not. The occasional public bathroom was never cleaned; men and women openly relieved themselves next to the sidewalks. The newspaper reported that young girls are forced to drop out of school around age 12 because schools have no bathrooms. Money that is appropriated for sanitation is embezzled and when facilities are built the people won’t use them. To this day, sanitation remains a huge problem in India.

At the major sites like the Taj Mahal, waiting in line to be searched, beggars of all ages beseech you constantly. The guides instructed us not to buy anything or they would not leave us alone.  Even so they still harassed us to the point where we had to be rude to get rid of them, but as soon as one group left, another would appear.

Each day we had a different guide. On trips to other countries the guides followed the itinerary, and provided plenty of food – they might try an occasional shortcut but generally tried to keep the clients happy.  In India they don’t seem to care.  The tourist is a commodity to be exploited for money.  They don’t expect to see you again and don’t seem concerned with making you happy or getting bad publicity.  Everything they do is for their convenience or their benefit, not the clients. Guides were late and took us to places not on the itinerary, skipping places that were.  For example, on the day the itinerary had a visit to the Monkey Temple scheduled, the guide announced that we were going to a textile bazaar instead. The group protested but she said the monkeys would bite us and drove off to the textile bazaar.  Eventually everyone realized that they were taking us to their friends’ shops to sell us stuff.  All the guides were all polite and friendly while simultaneously ripping us off.   It is this hypocrisy that is so objectionable.  I would rather be over charged or have someone be rude to my face. Then at least you know where you stand. We complained to the trip leader, but he seemed to have little influence.  It was then that we realized our worst mistake was having an intermediary between us and the guide.

 Why I’ll never return

I returned from India physically and emotionally debilitated.  I had strange rashes on my chest and weird rumbling noises in my gut.  I had read much on India and all the books and articles indicated that change was on the way.  I though I was prepared, but nothing prepares you for India. 

We saw amazing things in India – majestic snow capped mountains, the Taj Mahal at sunrise, forts and palaces. In the paradox that is India we saw, right next to these beautiful sights, beggars, poverty and filth. 

While I have no intention of returning to India, the question is should you go to India? Do the benefits outweigh the costs?  How much misery can you endure for a gorgeous view? These are only questions you can answer. But if you have a list of places to go to, I would put India near the bottom.  In my opinion the costs greatly exceeded the benefits. On the other hand, if you have a more experienced trip leader or better guides, you may have a better experience.  I would encourage anyone willing to step outside their comfort zone to visit India, but you must be mentally prepared for the unique cultural paradoxes that you will encounter.  Despite what you may read about changes there, India does not change. India changes you. 

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